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Thompson Follows Tradition Of Actors Into Politics

Candidate Thompson Follows Tradition of Actors Entering Politics

When Fred Thompson entered the contest for the Republican presidential nomination in September, he became the latest of a growing number of actors seeking to translate stage and screen skills and charisma into political success.

Earlier examples range from spectacular successes -- the late President Ronald Reagan and current California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger -- to several brief congressional careers built on starring television roles - Sonny Bono (The Sonny and Cher Show), Fred Grandy (The Love Boat) and Ben Jones (The Dukes of Hazzard).

Zelda Fichandler, director of the graduate acting program at New York University, cites an additional group of celebrities who have championed political causes without running for office, including Paul Newman, Alec Baldwin, Warren Beatty, George Clooney, Vanessa Redgrave and Angelina Jolie.

Fichandler sees dual motivations for actors to enter politics.

"I think there is some kind of natural affinity, because it's a public forum for them. I think there's a delight in taking center stage," Fichandler told USINFO. "There must be something in a person that makes them willing to go through the rigors today of seeking office and living through the hazards, the ups and downs of political life."

But she also cites altruistic motives.

"I think many actors are people of conscience, concerned with the world and determined to use their work to change what they feel needs to be changed to make for a decent life," she says. "And of course, in the modern age, if you're not good at television, you might as well get out of the race."

Fichandler said Reagan expertly carried his stage persona into the political arena and "looked like he was just comfortable there."

Derided by opponents when he ran for governor of California in 1966, actor Reagan actually possessed a solid administrative background, in jobs that included more than seven years as president of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG).

He swept to the presidency in 1980, decisively defeating the incumbent, Democrat Jimmy Carter. Perhaps reflecting his acting experience, Reagan's showing in a televised debate with Carter was a major boost to his campaign.

His perceived accomplishments as president make him a revered role model for Republican politicians to this day. He ranked second behind Abraham Lincoln in a February Gallup Poll asking respondents to name "the greatest U.S. president."

Reagan's path from movies to politics was pioneered a few years earlier by fellow actor George Murphy. A longtime fixture in Hollywood musicals and comedies, Murphy also served as president of SAG, established other "serious" credential as a vice president of Desilu Studios and Technicolor Corporation, and became chairman of the California Republican State Central Committee in 1953.


Reagan's massive success paved the way for a similar transition by Arnold Schwarzenegger, now in his second term as governor of California.

Schwarzenegger turned his championship body-building career into Hollywood action film stardom, most notably in the 1984 film The Terminator and its sequels.

Like Reagan before him, he was the butt of deprecating humor based on his background when he entered the race for California governor in 2003. Media outlets quickly dubbed him "The Governator." But, aided by unparalleled name recognition, he won the election by about 1.3 million votes.

His strong performance in office led to a one-sided re-election win in 2006, a poor year nationally for his Republican Party.

There is speculation that Schwarzenegger will run for the Senate in 2010, when his term as governor expires. Some supporters have called for an amendment to the U.S. Constitution to allow foreign-born citizens -- Schwarzenneger is a native of Austria -- to run for the presidency.

Thompson, who announced his candidacy for the presidency September 5 on the television program The Tonight Show, has followed an unusual career path. He started in law and politics before becoming an actor, serving as Republican counsel to the Senate committee that investigated the Watergate scandal in the Nixon administration.

He shifted to acting in 1985, typically playing government officials. Turning fiction into reality in 1994, he won a campaign to fill Vice President Al Gore's unexpired Senate seat from Tennessee, and was re-elected to a full six-year term in 1996. In the final months of that term, he returned to acting, joining the cast of NBC's Law & Order as District Attorney Arthur Branch, the role for which he is best known. He left the show to run for president.

There is irony in the actor-politician nexus. Republicans often condemn Hollywood as a bastion of left-wing activists who wield undue power in the political debate. Yet, a look at the recent history shows that most actors-turned-politicians are Republicans.

One actor-comedian seeking to change that in 2008 is Al Franken, a liberal Democrat seeking to represent Minnesota in the Senate. Franken is noted for his past work on NBC's late-night comedy show, Saturday Night Live.

Like other actors-turned-politicians before him, he also has serious credentials: In 2003, he served as a fellow at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.

An article in the October 18 edition of The Nation magazine compared Franken to the most famous actor-politician -- Reagan.

Franken, it speculates, "could emerge as one of the most serious exponents of mainstream liberalism in a generation, picking up and carrying forward the battered banner of his ideology the way Ronald Reagan reinvigorated the conservative cause."


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